Thursday, October 15, 2009

My top three history lit. idols

Yu-Mei and I had discussed writing some serious pieces about literary influences, but I think we've done quite enough of that kind of stuff already. Instead, and in the glorious cause of dumbing down wherever and whenever possible, here are (in no particular order) MY ALL TIME TOP THREE HISTORY LIT. IDOLS!

(My apologies now to all those concerned.)


1. SIMON SCHAMA: or simply 'The Schama' as he is known in my house (Sunday nights are reserved for his highly recommended Power of Art documentary series).

With his sassy delivery, cool jackets and his increasingly camp asides ('Well, he would say that wouldn't he?' seems a current favourite), 'The Schama' has emerged as the new Truman Capote of the TV dons world. His books aren't half bad either, and his personal philosophy when writing about the past, itself taken from his old Cambridge supervisor, is one with which I fully concur: to write history 'with the play of the imagination' and to 'bring a world to life, rather than entomb it in erudite discourse'.

Schama takes a bit of flak these days for being so popular (see the grilling he got in the American Historical Review recently for his hugely successful TV series A History of Britain). But although he might often cut to the chase, he rarely dumbs down and is never less than interesting.

Schama, we salute thee! (And yes, that was me hanging around Columbia last fall trying to get an autograph. The campus security are fascists!).

For more on Simon Schama see his bio on the PBS website.

2. JUNG CHANG

Dear Jung Chang,

I adored Wild Swans, even if one eminent historian I used to work with did dismiss it as merely 'a good beginner's guide to 20th-century Chinese history'. He's just jealous, of course, just like those other academics who got so upset when your Mao: The Unknown Story came out – especially those sentimental lefties who had preferred to think of Mao as an idealistic poet who had been lured to the dark side and were then made to look a bit foolish by all your new research. So what did these academics do? They attacked you for ... for your endnotes.

(Well, sister, we're behind you on that one – Singapore: A Biography has similarly un-academic endnotes.)

Next time you are passing through Hong Kong do drop by HKU and perhaps we can go for a coffee. My office is in the old quadrangle of the old building – you know, the one where Ang Lee filmed those romantic scenes of innocence about to be lost in Lust, Caution?

Not that I mean anything by that, of course.

For more on Jung Chang see this profile in the Guardian.

3. PETER ACKROYD

(Oh damn, I've used up my Truman Capote analogy already).

Well, in that case, Peter Ackroyd is like the Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-playing-Truman-Capote of the history lit. world - a camp old darling who, when he isn't working himself into another heart attack by writing too hard, can be found propping up the bar in one of his favourite East London pubs or wine bars.

Ackroyd has a special place in the genesis of Singapore: A Biography for being the root cause of not one but two cases of severe writer's block. The first instance was when my sister lent me his London: The Biography while I was staying with her in Cape Town and trying to work on our own Singapore: A Biography.

You see, Ackroyd is particularly known for his almost mystical belief in what he calls the 'territorial imperative', whereby a patch of ground, a house or even a city, influences the behaviour of its inhabitants, sometimes over several centuries. Inspired by the man, I tried playing with this idea for weeks before chucking it in when I finally conceded that the only territorial imperative in Singapore seemed to be to ceaselessly demolish, upgrade and develop.

Anyway, my sister then gave me his Shakespeare: The Biography as a birthday present, which I then lent to Yu-Mei. This led to the second instance of apparently Ackroyd-induced writer's block, Yu-Mei's account of which can be found on her blog.

All the same, I still love Ackroyd's work even though there is no point trying to emulate him.

P.S. Ackroyd has just written a book about Venice, the first time he's ventured beyond London and Britain for ages. What next? Surely not another book on another Renaissance City? Surely not ... Singapore: The Biography? (No, he wouldn't, he couldn't).

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